“A collection of covers from the bluesy London songstress.”
It’s been written on these pages before, but it needs writing again: Gemma Ray should be a household name, an artist whose blues-rich voice is on a public pedestal beside those of Polly Jean and Amy Jade. But her underground standing only adds to the our-special-secret appeal of an artist whose earliest material provided the catalyst for the formation of Bronzerat Records. Someone heard her, wanted – nay, needed – others to hear her, and set up a label to make that happen. Surely, commendations don’t come any greater.
The Lemonheads-punning It’s a Shame About Gemma Ray isn’t a follow-up proper to 2009’s superb Lights Out Zoltar! long-player. Recorded in New York by Matt Verta-Ray of Heavy Trash (and formerly Madder Rose), this compiles 16 cover versions of artists as wildly diverse as Mudhoney (Touch Me I’m Sick) and Lee Hazlewood (I’d Rather Be Your Enemy). Its lo-fi feel allows Ray’s gorgeous vocals to fill the mix, her take on Buddy Holly’s Everyday the sort of slow-burn torch song that effortlessly stirs the soul and suckers the heart into immediate infatuation.
Ray’s problem – if it can be considered one – is that she’s never sat comfortably within any typical category for critical assessment. She’s not traditional enough to appease folk purists, but not rock enough to get that crowd nodding along to her more rambunctious arrangements. By putting out a covers album, though, she might just be able to take a step upwards, towards wider recognition. Several of these songs are well-covered already – Big Spender by both The Pussycat Dolls and Homer Simpson, albeit (sadly) not together – and that familiarity should improve the chances of this release reaching more home stereos than Lights Out Zoltar!.
Of course, little is tackled in a straightforward manner. The aforementioned number, made famous by Shirley Bassey, is a befuddling mess of detuned twangs and suggestive whimpers. Ghost on the Highway takes The Gun Club’s original and spins it, kicking up sawdust, into a b-movie end-credits anthem. Her version of I’d Rather Go Blind is, perhaps (whisper this), even more wonderful than Etta James’ 1969 cut – stripped to its bare bones, the song is a sorrowful show-stopper. The most interesting effort is her take on Sonic Youth’s Drunken Butterfly – she takes the lyrics, but sets them to the music from Rosemary’s Baby. It probably shouldn’t work. But it does.
Here’s hoping enough people get to hear it.